Obscene and herd
"We wanted to be up there with that girl who sucked off the horse and gagged." Matt Stone is explaining the inspired and ambitious vision behind "Princess," an X-rated cartoon he and Trey Parker created for Shockwave.com back in 1999. "Shocked," a half-hour documentary about Parker and Stone's brief stint creating Internet entertainment (airing on TRIO tonight at 9 p.m.) explores that strange period during the late '90s when many in Hollywood were so afraid of getting left behind by the Internet boom that they abandoned their traditional jobs to get involved in Internet start-ups. (Those of us who'd had Internet jobs since the mid '90s, on the other hand, were more than happy to take the jobs they left behind.)
But Matt Stone and Trey Parker were in the catbird seat. They had a wildly popular series, "South Park," and Shockwave wanted them to produce Flash content for the Internet. Parker says that he told executives at Shockwave, "We'll do it if we can do whatever we want."
Ah, yes. I've issued the same ultimatum many a time, but usually the response is: "Security? There's a strange woman in my office and when I ask her to leave, she starts screaming about stock options."
His wish was granted. "We wanted to put the artist back in charge," explains Rob Burgess, CEO of Macromedia, which owns Shockwave.
Do you see where this is headed? "We were hoping it would be the most offensive thing, at least in terms of cartoons, or else what the hell were we doing?" Parker reports. Enter "Princess," a cute little doggie and his adorable doggie and kitty friends who romp around town and witness the sickest, most explicit scenes imaginable.
"At one point, Trey's comment was 'Make the penis look more realistic,'" animator Chris Brion recalls.
"We wanted to see little kids wearing this stuff [Princess merchandise] around, not knowing that the content it was based on was completely X-rated. But if you just looked at the crap, it says 'Princess.' It's really cute like little boys and girls would wear it," Stone explains. "That, still, is really funny." Stone and Parker giggle.
Cut to Stefanie Henning, who worked in content acquisition at Shockwave.com at the time. "We were really looking to create franchises. The question, obviously was, around 'Princess,' 'Is this a franchise? Is this something we can really mass market across multiple platforms?'"
"And then the second episode was the little boy seeing his dead mom being violated by a man ..." Stone explains, as Parker chuckles.
Watching "Shocked," it's tough not to feel a little bad for the Shockwave executives, as naive as they were, for being taken for such a ride by the Beavis and Butthead of the TV industry. In the documentary, Parker and Stone are not only their usual childish, smug selves, but they're absolutely shameless about creating some pretty disgusting content.
So why is it impossible not to cheer them on? There's something about the interplay between Henning and Burgess, their dorky businessspeak still littered with those pesky buzz words "content" and "multi-platform," and Stone and Parker's frank, shameless desire to offend. Maybe these two guys are sociopaths, but they're talented sociopaths, and when you flash between Stone and Parker giggling and Burgess talking about them "touching people where they don't like to be touched," the results are like a live-action version of "South Park," with Parker and Stone as Cartman and Stan, and Burgess as nerdy teacher Mr. Garrison.
Whether Stone and Parker are vaguely creepy whippersnappers or poster children for the FCC, "Shocked" provides a tidy parable of one of the most absurd junctures in the Hollywood Internet content bubble.
Never say "forever"
Onward, to absurd junctures in the reality TV programming bubble. The low point of idiotic reality TV seemed to have been reached last summer by "Paradise Hotel," the Fox show that began as an attempt to get hot people to make out, and ended in a strange, experimental landscape of openly manipulative producing. For some reason, the big, dumb, misguided animal known as "Drunk Asshole Hotel" stumbled onto some unforgettable terrain, and everyone won: Fox, the drunk assholes, the dumb animals at home ... everyone.
Of course, the beauty of Paradise! rested in its ham-handed inelegance and boozy missteps. After the initial incentive -- hook up, or leave! -- fell through, the producers made up new rules meant to trick the inhabitants, and eventually, the uncertainty of where the show was headed or how long it would last became a major part of its appeal.
This week, the creators of "Paradise Hotel" returned with "Forever Eden," where another round of idiots have been invited to stay as long as they can without getting kicked out by their fellow guests. There are a few differences, though:
1. Instead of setting the show at a glowing white palace with spectacular views, the producers decided to go with one of those seaside hotels available only through highly exclusive travel agents -- you know, the ones whose ads in the paper say: "Cancun!!! One week $295 + airfare!!!"
2. Instead of casting a wide range of very peculiar human beings, from wildly dysfunctional morons to mildly tweaked brainiacs, the geniuses at Fox decided to cast this show based on what are commonly known as the "Three Is Company" criteria: stupidity, loud gasping and double takes.
3. Instead of introducing us to our brand-new moron friends at the beginning of the show, the producers immediately roll out one SHOCKING NEW TWIST! after another, and after two shows on which nothing at all happens, outside of the announcement of more twists punctuated by more gasping and double takes, That Voice is already claiming that Monday's show is THE MOST SHOCKING YET!
So let's summarize: Last year, Fox tried to create a really crappy show, and stumbled onto a gold mine completely by accident. This year, instead of reproducing the first show exactly, including location, brand name, slow build-up, and a few special visits from former guests, Fox rolled out everything that was stupid about the first show with exactly none of its charms.
Now let's take a minute to collect our thoughts and reflect on just how stupid the producers behind "Gasping Moron Motel" are. Amazing, isn't it? I know a really smart dog that could come up with a better show than this.
My kingdom for a Band-Aid
But you know, as a devoted slave to "Paradise Hotel," I may be a little biased. Which brings us to an important distinction: There are critics who prefer to give the illusion that their word is final. They would like you to think that they have some privileged powers of perception, that they alone can separate what is Good from what is Bad.
Then there are people like me. I've got some good ideas, sure, but I also have a lot of personal preferences and prejudices based on a tangled set of psychosocial and cultural influences. Who knows, maybe if I didn't love ham so much, I would have enjoyed "Charlotte's Web" a little more when I was younger. Maybe if my parents got along better when I was a kid, I wouldn't love "Ordinary People" and "The Corrections" and "Six Feet Under" as much as I do.
Look, it's nice to pretend that you're objective. We all like to offer up this illusion whenever we can. But there comes a time when a writer must admit his or her prejudices. I watched Stephen King's "Kingdom Hospital," based on "The Kingdom" by Lars von Trier, and I tried to form an unsullied opinion of it. But here's the problem: I think Stephen King sucks.
To me, Stephen King is the worst kind of a sensationalist hack, the kind who puts a toddler in front of a 16-wheeler, or has a jilted lover masturbate all over his former girlfriend's bed, and he does it all without style or finesse or even an original turn of phrase or two. He's full of creepy stories, sure, but he's also full of hackneyed phrases and clichés. Sweet doggies turned rabid. Possessed toddlers. Brand new cars that smell almost as good as "pussy." I hate the stuff this guy writes about, the way he writes it, the way he takes his coffee, you name it.
So, let's take a scene from "Kingdom Hospital," just to see if you can understand where I'm coming from. A famous artist leaves his magnificent house to go for a run. As he's leaving, his wife tells him not to run on the road, because it's dangerous. Then she mentions that his latest painting is really weird. The artist leaves without saying goodbye, apparently angry at this comment. Guess what happens next? Instead of staying off the road, which we hear is quite dangerous, the artist runs right for it, and promptly gets mowed down by a guy in a van who's been swerving all over the road for several miles because he's trying to keep his Rottweiler away from a big raw steak which is, for some reason, within reach of the dog. The artist hits the windshield and ends up in a gruesome broken tangle on the ground -- just like a squashed ant, except with lots of blood and wild eyes staring up, helplessly. The guy in the van gets out, tells the bleeding tangled mess that he's really sorry, but he can't stick around because he's got an ounce of some unspecified drug in his dashboard.
Now, if the artist weren't famous, if the wife hadn't warned him about running on the road, if the guy in the van were trying to keep a poodle away from a bag of Cheetos instead of a Rottweiler from a steak, if he had no good excuse for leaving his victim bleeding on the road, aside from a fear of being charged with vehicular manslaughter, maybe I could excuse this scene. But everything here is so fundamentally filthy with Stephen King's grubby fingerprints, I really can't stand to watch. Did I mention that a crow lands on the bleeding guy's chest and threatens to eat his eyes out? A crow, get it? Crows are really creepy! Then, as I sit in amazement at the overly obvious, absurd details King has chosen, I vaguely recall something about his being in some kind of a serious accident a few years ago. A 10-second Google search later, I discover that every "absurd" detail I just listed, except the part about the drugs and the guy leaving the scene of the crime, is taken straight from the true story of King getting hit by a van while taking a walk through the country.
Has there ever been clearer proof of a critic's utter lack of objectivity? I am now willing to admit that I'm in no way qualified to analyze Stephen King's work. Obviously, I've disliked his books and movies for far too long to have anything reasonable to say about him.
America's next chain store sweetheart
I'm similarly biased when it comes to "America's Next Top Model," which, this week, featured the following exchange between art director Jay Manuel and stylist Nolé Marin during a photo shoot in Italy:
Jay: Shandi? She looks like she's in Italian Vogue, period.
Nolé: Hands down, girlfriend!
Jay: I don't know how she came from Walgreen's to this.
Nolé: That's where they all come from! Walgreen's and Dairy Queen.
Smells like teen spirits
This Friday, Fox's "Wonderfalls" premieres, completing the Teen Girl With Mystical Powers trend which this clairvoyant outlined in detail last fall. No one is sure why it's the teen girls, of all people, who get to speak to God and the grim reaper and little plastic tchotchkes with big messages, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that, at the casting call, they were the ones who looked the best in the ass pants. And if spirits from the great beyond are going to spend their time hanging out with some mere mortal, I guess it's understandable that they'd like the mortal to have dewy, baby-soft skin and minty-fresh breath.
I remember thinking that Jaye, the protagonist from "Wonderfalls," was the most believable of all of the mystical teens when I saw the pilot last fall, and that her stories were the most satisfying, but I'll have to check out a few more episodes to be sure. Something about the way she's described, on Fox's Web site, as a "pathological narcissist" who's "over-educated and unemployable" strikes me as a little too cool for school, but maybe I'm just jealous of those remarkable chocolate-brown velvet ass pants she's wearing.
Quitters never win anything but lawsuits
Despite my initial excitement, "Survivor: All-Stars" is starting to remind me of the NBA All-Star game this year: A bunch of smug, spoiled kids standing around doing nothing while acting like they're putting on the greatest show on earth. Rupert aligning with Boston Rob? Lex keeping his fishing skills a secret? Jerry whining about chocolate and peanut butter all over again? Even Rob Cesternino, my favorite Survivor ever, was limp and personality-free up until the moment they kicked his sorry ass off the island.
And now Sue Hawk quits the game, weeping about being sexually molested by Richard Hatch? How much more pathetic could this season be? Sue chose to squeeze past Richard in the Balance Beam challenge instead of taking an unobstructed route, despite the fact that he was naked, he's insane, and he hates her. Richard flapped his genitalia in her direction and now she can't sleep at night, because she's been humiliated and abused and harassed and demeaned and whatever other words she screeched at Jeff Probst. Unhinged outbursts like hers give victims of real abuse a bad name.
I understand waking up in the middle of the night hating Hatch. I once had a boss throw something at me, and I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep because I kept picturing beating his face in. I think it's obvious that Sue truly believes that she was traumatized. It's also obvious that she needs to talk to a licensed professional about the fact that a glancing blow from a gay man's limp penis can transform a trash-talking trucker (who last week urinated while she was on the same raft with three other people) into a jumble of tearful recriminations and enraged outbursts. It makes me wonder if the Survivors are allowed to continue their usual doses of psychotropic drugs while they're in the wilderness.
Now that's a branding opportunity for the next reward challenge. "Want to know what you're playing for?" Probst asks, then unveils ... A month's supply of Zoloft! It's almost too good to be true!
Next week: Find out how the lil' Donald ducklings fare without Assorama around to make them look good! Also: What happens when you tell your boyfriend (who you love sooo much!) that you just had sex with a hot Italian? Stay tuned, my little couch muffins, and find out!